‘The Comcast Evening News’

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Walter Cronkite brought us the evening news for decades; we watched in awe. Uncle Walter packaged stories of import that made tens of millions stop, sit, lean forward, and grab it in. There was never a doubt that Cronkite was in charge.

These days we have Brian Williams presenting segments that are for the most part neatly packaged promos with a tie-in to Universal and Comcast. NBC’s daddy has a huge portfolio of lower-rated cable networks that Comcast feels must be showcased on the network news. These include the Weather Channel, NBC Sports Net, USA Network, Cloo, and even a new African American storytelling site (theGrio), all of which are mentioned in more than half of what’s covered in News With Brian Williams (not including the previews of NBC’s Dateline).

Where a sacred shroud of church and state existed during Cronkite’s day — entertainment programming knew nothing about the news division and vice versa — has gone by the wayside thanks to new-fashioned desperation in the form of memos from the TV gods.

Williams keeps losing his cred as he brings on “experts” from various Comcast holdings — see early May’s letter to the Justice Department about Comcast by Sen. Franken — and hypes the latest Universal movie in segments, wincing all the while. Like most wage earners Williams must believe he’s imminently replaceable and the hardworking chap can still see skid marks where Tom Brokaw was pushed out. He probably thinks they can wind up a new anchor via the hype machine called “NBC.”

Yes, network advertisers are mentioned in the news all the time. (It’s comical when a sanctimonious reporters act as though that never happens.) But corporate entities make news and many of the giants are solvent enough to run ads too. As for the giggly morning shows, these have been promoting primetime programming with gusto between stories about menopause since J. Fred Muggs — the chimp — hosted Today in the ’50s.

But a well-preserved, ultimately brief, news show has a duty not to produce three segments about USA Network’s airing a 50th anniversary telecast of To Kill A Mockingbird; or do nightly storm stories right after its parent buys the Weather Channel; or hype meaningless sports hours to help low-rated NBC Sports Network. These aren’t reasons to use 22 measly minutes allotted for informational programming.

And Williams is no innocent. He joyfully previews news-free interviews coming up on his own Rock Center With Brian Williams, NBC’s “Dateline Lite” that keeps getting new time slots searching for viewers (Monday, Wednesday, Friday–now off the air during May Sweeps). NBC This self-promotional NBC Gone Wild is so out of control that last month Weekend Evening News host Lester Holt ran five minutes of a commencement address he gave at Pepperdine U!

If the network news producers act like weaselly pegs in oversized conglomerated wheels while the bosses dictate all movements then it’s soon going to be hard to tell what is news from what is a commercial for Comcast.

Watching actual ads on the evening news (i.e., must-pee pills for erectile dysfunction or overactive bladders) prove there isn’t a lot of demand to advertise. So cancel the evening news, already, and produce 30 minutes of promos of shows on Comcast properties rather than pretending 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. is news. This new show is exactly what E! Entertainment Television — NBC’s closest sister — does with ease.

Comcast owns or co-owns more than 25 networks and sites — iVillage, A&E, History, Oxygen, Golf Channel and DailyCandy to start — and many were smart investments. But ripping apart the proud peacock when NBC News has better ratings than its weak nighttime lineup is sure to lessen Comcast’s value. What’s bad for viewers is bad for shareholders.

It’s likely “creatives” like Williams and Holt have built enough goodwill within NBC to ignore the baser objectives of their bosses. I remember how, after Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus talked to the media about her new show Watching Ellie. She said she refused to allow network executives on the set. The quick-witted star snorted: “As if any notes from the network has ever helped a show.”
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